How do you continue doing everyday things in an age of terrorism? How do you avoid spending the whole day worrying about your children and grandchildren when your family has seen too much loss from devastating illness some of it genetic? How do you find the courage to cross the street, when so many unlicensed/drunk/careless drivers inhabit the cars that speed down our streets? And how do you find the strength to read newspapers, when so much of the news is outright terrifying or, if we’re lucky, only mildly disturbing or infuriating?
Sometimes, youth and na?vete are a defense. I remember, during the Cuban missile crisis, sitting on my front stoop in Laurelton, Queens, looking up, waiting for nuclear weapons to rain down from the sky. My friend DeeDee and I watching the sky on behalf of all mankind could not have pronounced the words "existential threat" even if we’d known them, but we did know that we had a responsibility of sorts to guard the world, or at least alert it to impending doom. We had (so I thought) the ability to do something.
Another time, a friend and I heard the burglar alarm sound in a local mineralogist’s shop and went racing to his home (it was a small community; we knew where he lived) to warn him of foul play. Again, I remember feeling important a bit breathless, but otherwise in control. I no longer feel that way.
Life has a way of taking things out of your hands. People die, governments make decisions that threaten you and your family or abridge your rights, the air we breathe is often foul, the water suspect, and the economy uncertain. All the while, we know that someone is benefiting from all this, but we’re not sure who. (It was almost a relief to find out that Halliburton was making out like a bandit in the rubble of Iraq so we could pin a name to our intuitive feeling that someone, somewhere, had some power.)
People aren’t born knowing how to deal with stress and uncertainty, and some people never learn. Sometimes we can buy ourselves off with down time (hours under the covers with murder mysteries), sometimes with chocolate, and sometimes with virtuous, if punishing, bouts of exercise.
I recently had a "duh" moment, when I realized that even if we can’t change some of the major realities of our lives, we can make ourselves feel a bit better. (This conclusion would have been totally unacceptable to me in the 1960s, when I believed, together with all others in their ‘0s, that we had an absolute responsibility to change the big things and we could.)
Central to my new philosophy of self-soothing is music. Finally throwing off the suspicion that all song lyrics should be treated as objects of disdain, containing absolutely no redeeming social value, I have come to treasure the cleansing power of sad songs, the (ironically) soothing qualities of repetitive, loud noises, and the uncanny ability of familiar song lyrics to invoke feelings of nostalgia and comfort.
Paul McCartney once sang, "Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs . What’s wrong with that, I want to know?" I’m with you, Paul. And I have a new appreciation for the James Taylor classic, "Shower the people you love with love (show them the way you feel)." If we all did that, we wouldn’t have to factor guilt into the grieving process. Good message. And there’s no better way to bond with one’s grandchildren than through the joint chanting of songs ranging from the "Eensy-Weensy Spider" to the "Hokey-Pokey" to "Erev Shel Shoshanim" (my granddaughter is bilingual).
So in the absence of more rational solutions to terrorism, illness, drunken drivers, and boogeymen I will continue to sing. I once discovered (there were witnesses) that when I sang, crickets chirped along with me. When I stopped, they stopped. Maybe there’s a lesson in this; maybe it will just have to be enough for now.